MARPLE team awarded for international impact

Research team behind a revolutionary field test for wheat disease wins prestigious BBSRC prize

International Impact winners Diane Saunders and Dave Hodson with Malcolm Skingle, director of Academic Liaison, GlaxoSmithKline and Melanie Welham, executive chair of BBSRC. Photo ©BBSRC

The research team behind the MARPLE (Mobile And Real-time PLant disEase) diagnostic kit won the international impact category of the annual Innovator of the Year Awards sponsored by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The team — Diane Saunders of the John Innes Centre (JIC), Dave Hodson of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and Tadessa Daba of the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) — was presented with the award at a high-profile event at the London Science Museum on 15 May 2019 before an audience of leading figures from the worlds of investment, industry, government, charity and academia, including Chris Skidmore MP, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation.

The BBSRC Innovator of the Year awards, now in their 11th year, recognize and support individuals or teams who have taken discoveries in bioscience and translated them to deliver impact. Reflecting the breadth of research that BBSRC supports, they are awarded in four categories of impact: commercial, societal, international and early career.

Diane Saunders of John Innes Centre and Dave Hodson of CIMMYT pose with the MARPLE diagnostics kit. Credit: JIC

As finalists in the international impact category, Saunders, Hodson and Daba were among a select group of 12 finalists competing for the prestigious Innovator of the Year 2019 award. In addition to international recognition, they received a £10,000 award.

“I am delighted that this work has been recognized,” said Hodson. “Wheat rusts are a global threat to agriculture, and to the livelihoods of farmers in developing countries such as Ethiopia. MARPLE diagnostics puts state of the art, rapid diagnostic results in the hands of those best placed to respond: researchers on the ground, local government and farmers.”

MARPLE diagnostics is the first operational system in the world using nanopore sequence technology for rapid diagnostics and surveillance of complex fungal pathogens in the field.

In its initial work in Ethiopia, the suitcase-sized field test kit has positioned the country, among the region’s top wheat producers, as a world leader in pathogen diagnostics and forecasting. Generating results within 48 hours of field sampling, the kit represents a revolution in plant disease diagnostics with far-reaching implications for how plant health threats are identified and tracked into the future.

The MARPLE mobile lab in Ethiopia. Credit: JIC

MARPLE is designed to run at a field site without constant electricity and with the varying temperatures of the field.

“This means we can truly take the lab to the field,” explained Saunders. “Perhaps more importantly though, it means that smaller, less resourced labs can drive their own research without having to rely on a handful of large, well-resourced labs and sophisticated expertise in different countries.”

In a recent interview with JIC, EIAR Director Tadessa Daba said, “We want to see this project being used on the ground, to show farmers and the nation this technology works.”



Development of the MARPLE diagnostic kit was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture Inspire Challenge. Continued support is also provided by the BBSRC Excellence with Impact Award to the John Innes Centre and the Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat project led by Cornell University International Programs that is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

More information on the JIC-CIMMYT-EIAR team’s BBSRC recognition can be found on the JIC website, the BBSRC website and the website of the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat.

WHEAT contributes to G20 agricultural research agenda

Wheat spikes damaged by blast. Photo: CIMMYT

Lead agricultural scientists from G20 member countries gathered in Tokyo, Japan last month to discuss ways to promote science and technology as mechanisms to support the global food system.

The Meeting of Agricultural Chief Scientists (MACS), which took place on April 25-26 in Tokyo, focused on identifying global research priorities in agriculture and ways to facilitate collaboration among G20 members and with relevant stakeholders.  The purpose is to develop a global agenda ahead of the May 11-12 meeting of G20 Agricultural Ministers.

CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT) Program Manager Victor Kommerell was among the attendees.

“It is essential to advocate for science-based decision making,” he said. “Better connecting the dots between national agricultural research agendas and the CGIAR international agenda is important. The G20 wheat initiative and WHEAT have made a good start.”

The threat of pests and the importance of adopting climate smart technology came up as high priorities.

Transboundary pests have become a serious threat to food security, exacerbated by the globalized movement of people and commodities and the changing climate. As Kommerell commented to the attendees, pathogens and pests cause global crop losses of 20 to 30 percent. This has a “double penalty” effect, wasting both food and resources invested in farming inputs.

The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is particularly focused on pests and diseases threatening maize and wheat, such as Fall armyworm and wheat rust and blast.  Kommerell summarized a number of research-based solutions underway thanks to international collaboration – including building globally-accessible rapid screening facilities and using wild crop relatives as a genetic source for resistance. But non-technical solutions, such as boosting awareness and communicating preventative farming practices are also important.

The agricultural field is especially vulnerable to the effects of changing climate and weather variability, while at the same time heavily contributing as a source of greenhouse gases. Innovative agricultural technologies and practices are essential for sustainable production, climate resilience and carbon sequestration as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  

The key, the attendees concluded in a meeting communiqué, is the open and international exchange of knowledge, experience, and practices. Networks are already in place, but need strengthening at both the regional and international level.

To that end, a task force led by Australia and the United States will develop guidelines for working groups and initiatives designed to mitigate pests and scale adoption of climate smart technologies.

The government of Japan is also taking an active role, with plans to hold international conferences this year to facilitate sharing of experiences, research, and best practices from G20 countries.

Protecting the World’s Wheat – Delivering Genetic Gain in Kenya

In February 2019 filmmaker Chris Knight of International Programs at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences visited the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization – Food Crops Research Institute (KALRO – FCRI) research station in Njoro, Kenya.  Wanting to visually capture how Cornell is working with CIMMYT and a global partnership of more than 25 countries to protect the world’s wheat from diseases and the stress of climate change, he produced the short film Protecting the World’s Wheat – Delivering Genetic Gain in Kenya .

The film features East Africa, a center of genetic diversity for wheat stem rust, a fungal pathogen that causes significant yield losses worldwide. To combat this, partner countries test more than 50,000 experimental wheat lines against stem rust in Kenya every year at the Njoro research station to ensure that newly released wheat varieties will be resistant to emerging virulent races of the stem rust fungus as they evolve and spread.

Farmers and scientists have been fighting stem rust since the domestication of wheat thousands of years ago. This brilliant dance between humans and nature will likely never stop, but by working together we can stay one step ahead of this pesky pathogen. As Ruth Wanyera, Principal Research Scientist at KALRO stated, “(Stem rust) is running, and we’re also running. It’s running, and we’re also running. We have to do something to make sure there’s food in the table. That is where my motivation is. Let’s do something. Let’s feed the world. Let there be food for people to eat, or for people to survive.”

Q&A with Mandeep Randhawa, CIMMYT wheat rust expert at Njoro Platform, Kenya

Photo Credit: Chris Knight, Cornell University

As a part of a global network to combat the Ug99 race of wheat stem rust, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), in collaboration with Cornell University and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), established a stem rust phenotyping platform in Njoro, Kenya in 2008.

Under the aegis of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project and with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the platform evaluates the resistance of germplasm against Ug99 from 25 to 30 countries around the world.

Mandeep Randhawa — a wheat breeder and geneticist — joined CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program in 2015 and took responsibility as manager of the Njoro wheat stem rust phenotyping platform in 2017.

In the following Q&A —  based on an interview with Chris Knight of Cornell University’s Borlaug Global Rust Initiative — Mandeep talks about his role and his thoughts on global wheat production and the fight against Ug99.

Q: Could you describe the significance of the work that goes on here to global wheat production and global food security with respect to wheat?

A: CIMMYT has a global mandate to serve developing countries in terms of developing new wheat and maize varieties. Under the CIMMYT-Kenya shuttle breeding program, seed of about 2000 segregated populations are imported and evaluated against stem rust races for two seasons in Njoro, and spikes from resistant plants of each cross are selected, harvested and threshed together. Then, seed from each cross is shipped back to Obregon [the Campo Experimental Norman E. Borlaug in Obregon, Mexico].

In Obregon, CIMMYT selects for resistance against leaf rust and stem rust diseases using the local rust races. Plants are selected in Obregon and about 90,000 to 100,000 plants harvested. After grain selection, 40,000 to 50,000 small plots are grown in other testing sites in Mexico where another round of selections are made. About 10,000 lines undergo first year yield trials in Obregon, and are tested for stem rust resistance here in Kenya for two seasons.

After combining data from the various test sites with the stem rust score from Kenya, the top performing lines (about 10%) undergo second year yield tests in Obregon.

These high-yielding lines are distributed internationally to our national partners, and are available to the public for use in breeding program for release as potential varieties.  

I believe that it is helpful to develop new varieties with higher yield to benefit mankind.

Q: Twenty years have now passed since Ug99 was first identified. One way to frame the story is how high the stakes were at the time. If we didn’t have this screening platform, if we hadn’t come together around trying to fight Ug99, what would have happened to global wheat production?

This is a good question. We have done so much for the last 10 years using this platform. We are developing high-yielding lines that are rust resistant, which are benefiting not only the world’s wheat community, but will eventually benefit the farmer and help raise global wheat production. If we had not acted at the right time, we would not be able to know the effect of these emerging races and how they’re evolving and affecting the world of our wheat. If we didn’t have proper surveillance on rusts, we wouldn’t be able to know what types of stem rust races are evolving.

If we did not have this platform, we would see wheat varieties simply killed by stem rust and we wouldn’t have enough resources to tackle it today.

Now we are at a place where several Ug99-resistant genes have been identified – they are very useful in the breeding programs.

There are two types of resistance. One is race specific resistance and another is race non-specific resistance. If you deploy race specific resistance, there is always the fear that these genes will be rendered ineffective because of the evolution of new races. It has been seen in East Africa with the wheat varieties Robin and Digelu that were rendered susceptible with the emergence of virulent strains of wheat stem rust pathogen. To avoid sudden breakdown of resistance, we at CIMMYT are working to identify, characterize and combine race non-specific type of rust resistance sources. Race non-specific resistance is considered more durable. At least four to five genes need to be combined in one cultivar to have a stronger immunity or resistance.

Q: Let’s talk a little bit about the future. We’ve made a lot of progress, we’ve developed this platform, we brought a community of more than 25 countries together to work on this problem. What do we need to do in the next 20 years?

Stem rust was considered a disease prevalent in warmer environments, but now we can see that races have also evolved in Europe, which means that stem rust is adapting to cooler climates. In the near future, or in the next 20 years, I think we have to continue testing wheat germplasm at this platform to develop high-yielding rust resistant varieties that can be released in different countries, which will be helpful to the global wheat community. And globally speaking, it will be helpful to increase our wheat production.

Q: That’s really exciting. Thinking about the number of wheat lines that are screened here, how many wheat lines are screened here every year, and how many countries do we serve?

When the platform initially formed, my predecessors struggled a lot. It was very hard to plant wheat here. Now we have progressed in the last ten years to reach a level that we can test about 25,000 lines in one season. We have two seasons here in Kenya: one is the off-season starting from January to April/May, and then the main season starts from June and goes to the end of October. During these two seasons, about 50,000 lines per year can be tested at this platform. About 25 to 30 countries are benefitting by testing their germplasm here.

Q: We not only need to cultivate the wheat, we need to cultivate the next generation of scientists. So can you talk about the trainings that are run here on a regular basis? People from all over the world come here to learn about rust pathology and wheat breeding, right?

In the last 10 years, we have been implementing capacity building where young scientists are coming to attend a stem rust training course every year, in September and October. Every year we train about 20 to 30 young scientists from national programs in East Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and South America. Every year Dr. Bob McIntosh — he’s a living legend, an encyclopedia of rust resistance – comes over to Njoro to give field demonstrations, teach new technologies, how we can work together, how you can evaluate rust in the field and in the greenhouse. And in addition, a team of scientists from CIMMYT, ICARDA and Cornell University have been coming to provide lectures on genetics and breeding for rust resistance and rust surveys every year for the last 10 years. We have trained more than 200 scientists.

Q: Do you have a final word of motivation for all of the collaborators around the world who are supporting and helping together to achieve these goals?

We have seen in the last two decades of work here that rust never sleeps, as Dr. Norman Borlaug said. It continues to evolve, and the different races keep on moving around and tend to survive on wheat without any resistance. Not only in east Africa: you can see the stem rust is already in Europe – in Sicily, in Germany and the UK. And there is a risk to South Asia as well, as the wind is blowing toward the bread wheat producing area there. If stem rust reaches there, it can cause a huge loss to global wheat production.

So, I request that countries’ national agriculture research systems contact us: me or Ruth Wanyera, the wheat rust pathologist in KALRO  if they want to test or evaluate their material at this platform. We are more than happy to evaluate the germplasm from any country.

Mandeep can be reached at m.randhawa@cgiar.org

Mexican Secretary of Agriculture joins new partners and longtime collaborators at Global Wheat Program Obregon Visitors’ Week

Secretary Villalobos with Hans Braun, Program Director for the Global Wheat Program, in a CENEB wheat field (Credit: Ernesto Blancarte)

“The dream has become a reality.” These words by Victor Manuel Villalobos Arambula, Secretary of Agriculture and Rural Development of Mexico, summed up the sentiment felt among the attendees at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) Global Wheat Program Visitors’ Week in Ciudad Obregon, Sonora.

In support of the contributions to global and local agricultural programs, Villalobos spoke at the week’s field day, or “Dia de Campo,” in front of more than 200 CIMMYT staff and visitors hailing from more than 40 countries on March 20, 2019.

Villalobos recognized the immense work ahead in the realm of food security, but was optimistic that young scientists could carry on the legacy of Norman Borlaug by using the tools and lessons that he left behind. “It is important to multiply our efforts to be able to address and fulfill this tremendous demand on agriculture that we will face in the near future,” he stated.

The annual tour at the Campo Experimental Norman E. Borlaug allows the global wheat community to see new wheat varieties, learn about latest research findings, and hold meetings and discussions to collaborate on future research priorities. Given the diversity of attendees and CIMMYT’s partnerships, it is no surprise that there were several high-level visits to the field day.

The annual tour at the Campo Experimental Norman E. Borlaug allows the global wheat community to see new wheat varieties, learn about latest research findings, and hold meetings and discussions to collaborate on future research priorities.

Secretary Villalobos tours the CENEB wheat fields with CIMMYT WHEAT scientists (Credit: Ernesto Blancarte)

Given the diversity of attendees and CIMMYT’s partnerships, it is no surprise that there were several high-level visits to the field day.

A high-level delegation from India, including Balwinder Singh Sidhu, commissioner of agriculture for the state of Punjab, AK Singh, deputy director general for agricultural extension at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), and AS Panwar, director of ICAR’s Indian Institute of Farming Systems Research, joined the tour and presentations. All are longtime CIMMYT collaborators on efforts to scale up and disseminate sustainable intensification and climate smart farming practices.

Panwar, who is working with CIMMYT and partners to develop typologies of Indian farming systems to more effectively promote climate smart practices, was particularly interested in the latest progress in biofortification.

“One of the main objectives of farming systems is to meet nutrition of the farming family. And these biofortified varieties can be integrated into farming systems,” he said.

In addition, a delegation from Tunisia, including dignitaries from Tunisia’s National Institute of Field Crops (INGC), signed a memorandum of understanding with CIMMYT officials to promote cooperation in research and development through exchange visits, consultations and joint studies in areas of mutual interest such as the diversification of production systems. INGC, which conducts research and development, training and dissemination of innovation in field crops, is already a strong partner in the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT)’s Precision Phenotyping Platform for Wheat Septoria leaf blight.

At the close of the field day, CIMMYT wheat scientist Carolina Rivera was honored as one of the six recipients of the annual Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum (WIT) Early Career Award. The award offers professional development opportunities for women working in wheat. “Collectively, these scientists are emerging as leaders across the wheat community,” said Maricelis Acevedo, Associate Director for Science for Cornell University’s Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat Project, who announced Rivera’s award.

WHEAT and Global Wheat Program Director Hans Braun also took the opportunity to honor and thank three departing CIMMYT wheat scientists. Carlos Guzman, head of wheat nutrition and quality, Mohammad Reza Jalal Kamali, CIMMYT country representative in Iran, and Alexey Morgounov, head of the International Winter Wheat Improvement Program received Yaquis, or statues of a Yaqui Indian. The figure of the Yaqui Indian is a Sonoran symbol of beauty and the gifts of the natural world, and the highest recognition given by the Global Wheat Program.

The overarching thread that ran though the Visitor’s Week was that all were in attendance because of their desire to benefit the greater good through wheat science. As retired INIFAP director and Global Wheat Program Yaqui awardee Antonio Gándara said, recalling his parents’ guiding words, “Siempre, si puedes, hacer algo por los demas, porque es la mejor forma de hacer algo por ti. [Always, if you can, do something for others, because it’s the best way to do something for yourself].”

Innovative irrigation promises “more crop per drop” for India’s water-stressed cereals

A pioneering study demonstrates how rice and wheat can be grown using 40 percent less water, through an innovative combination of existing irrigation and cropping techniques. (Photo: Naveen Gupta/CIMMYT)

This article by Vanessa Meadu was originally posted on March 21, 2019 on cimmyt.org.

On World Water day, researchers show how India’s farmers can beat water shortages and grow rice and wheat with 40 percent less water

India’s northwest region is the most important production area for two staple cereals: rice and wheat. But a growing population and demand for food, inefficient flood-based irrigation, and climate change are putting enormous stress on the region’s groundwater supplies. Science has now confronted this challenge: a “breakthrough” study demonstrates how rice and wheat can be grown using 40 percent less water, through an innovative combination of existing irrigation and cropping techniques. The study’s authors, from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA), Punjab Agricultural University and Thapar University, claim farmers can grow similar or better yields than conventional growing methods, and still make a profit.

The researchers tested a range of existing solutions to determine the optimal mix of approaches that will help farmers save water and money. They found that rice and wheat grown using a “sub-surface drip fertigation system” combined with conservation agriculture approaches used at least 40 percent less water and needed 20 percent less Nitrogen-based fertilizer, for the same amount of yields under flood irrigation, and still be cost-effective for farmers. Sub-surface drip fertigation systems involve belowground pipes that deliver precise doses of water and fertilizer directly to the plant’s root zone, avoiding evaporation from the soil. The proposed system can work for both rice and wheat crops without the need to adjust pipes between rotations, saving money and labor. But a transition to more efficient approaches will require new policies and incentives, say the authors.

During the study, researchers used a sub-surface drip fertigation system, combined with conservation agriculture approaches, on wheat fields. (Photo: Naveen Gupta/CIMMYT)

Read the full story:

Innovative irrigation system could future-proof India’s major cereals. Thomsom Reuters Foundation News, 20 March 2019.

Read the study:

Sidhu HS, Jat ML, Singh Y, Sidhu RK, Gupta N, Singh P, Singh P, Jat HS, Gerard B. 2019. Sub-surface drip fertigation with conservation agriculture in a rice-wheat system: A breakthrough for addressing water and nitrogen use efficiency. Agricultural Water Management. 216:1 (273-283). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agwat.2019.02.019

The study received funding from the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the Government of Punjab. The authors acknowledge the contributions of the field staff at BISA and CIMMYT based at Ludhiana, Punjab state.

Q&A with 2019 WIT awardee Carolina Rivera

Carolina Rivera shakes the hand of Maricelis Acevedo, Associate Director for Science for Cornell University’s Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat Project and WIT mentor, after the announcement of the WIT award winners.

As a native of Obregon, Mexico, Carolina Rivera has a unique connection to the heart of Norman Borlaug’s wheat fields. She is now carrying on Borlaug’s legacy and working with wheat as a wheat physiologist at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and data coordinator with the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP).

Given her talents and passion for wheat research, it is no surprise that Rivera is among this year’s six recipients of the 2019 Jeanie Borlaug Laube Women in Triticum (WIT) Early Career Award. As a young scientist at CIMMYT, she has already worked to identify new traits associated with the optimization of plant morphology aiming to boost grain number and yield.

The Jeanie Borlaug Laube WIT Award provides professional development opportunities for women working in wheat. The review panel responsible for the selection of the candidates at the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI), was impressed by her commitment towards wheat research on an international level and her potential to mentor future women scientists.

Established in 2010, the award is named after Jeanie Borlaug Laube, wheat science advocate and mentor, and daughter of Nobel Laureate Dr. Norman E. Borlaug. As a winner, Rivera is invited to attend a training course at CIMMYT in Obregon, Mexico, in spring 2020 as well as the BGRI 2020 Technical Workshop, to be held in the UK in June 2020. Since the award’s founding, there are now 50 WIT award winners.

The 2019 winners were announced on March 20 during CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program Visitors’ Week in Obregon.

In the following interview, Rivera shares her thoughts about the relevance of the award and her career as a woman in wheat science.

Q: What does receiving the Jeanie Borlaug Laube WIT Award mean to you?

I feel very honored that I was considered for the WIT award, especially after having read the inspiring biographies of former WIT awardees. Receiving this award has encouraged me even more to continue doing what I love while standing strong as a woman in science.

It will is a great honor to receive the award named for Jeanie Borlaug, who is a very active advocate for wheat research. I am also very excited to attend the BGRI Technical Workshop next year, where lead breeders and scientists will update the global wheat community on wheat rust research. I expect to see a good amount of women at the meeting!

Q: When did you first become interested in agriculture?

My first real encounter with agriculture was in 2009 when I joined CIMMYT Obregon as an undergraduate student intern. I am originally from Obregon, so I remember knowing about the presence of CIMMYT, Campo Experimental Norman E. Borlaug (CENEB) and Instituto Nacional de Investigación Forestales Agrícolas y Pecuario (Inifap) in my city but not really understanding the real importance and impact of the research coming from those institutions. After a few months working at CIMMYT, I became very engrossed in my work and visualized myself as a wheat scientist.

Q: Why is it important to you that there is a strong community of women in agriculture?

We know women play a very important role in agriculture in rural communities, but in most cases they do not get the same rights and recognition as men. Therefore, policies — such as land rights — need to be changed and both women and men need to be educated in gender equity. I think the latter factor is more likely to strengthen communities of women, both new and existing, working in agriculture.

In addition, women should participate more in science to show that agricultural research is an area where various ideas and perspectives are necessary. To achieve this in the long run, policies need to look at current social and cultural practices holding back the advancement of women in their careers.

Q: What are you currently working on with CIMMYT and IWYP?

I am a post-doctoral fellow in CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program where I assist in collaborative projects to improve wheat yield potential funded by IWYP. I am also leading the implementation of IWYP’s international research database, helping to develop CIMMYT’s wheat databases in collaboration with the center’s Genetic Resources Program. Apart from research and data management, I am passionate about offering trainings to students and visitors on field phenotyping approaches.

Q: Where do you see yourself in the agriculture world in 10 years?

In 10 years, I see myself as an independent scientist, generating ideas that contribute to delivering wheat varieties with higher yield potential and better tolerance to heat and drought stresses. I also see myself establishing strategies to streamline capacity building for graduate students in Mexico. At that point, I would also like to be contributing to policy changes in education and funding for science in Mexico.

Support groups open women’s access to farm technologies in northeast India

by Dakshinamurthy Vedachalam, Sugandha Munshi / This article was originally published on the website of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center on March 12, 2019

In Odisha and Bihar, CSISA has leveraged the social capital of women’s self-help groups formed by the government and other civil society partners and which offer entry points for training and social mobilization, as well as access to credit. (Photo: CSISA)

Self-help groups in Bihar, India, are putting thousands of rural women in touch with agricultural innovations, including mechanization and sustainable intensification, that save time, money, and critical resources such as soil and water, benefiting households and the environment.

The Bihar Rural Livelihoods Promotion Society, locally known as Jeevika, has partnered with the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia (CSISA), led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), to train women’s self-help groups and other stakeholders in practices such as zero tillage, early sowing of wheat, direct-seeded rice and community nurseries.

Through their efforts to date, more than 35,000 households are planting wheat earlier than was customary, with the advantage that the crop fully fills its grain before the hot weather of late spring. In addition, some 18,000 households are using zero tillage, in which they sow wheat directly into unplowed fields and residues, a practice that improves soil quality and saves water, among other benefits. As many as 5,000 households have tested non-flooded, direct-seeded rice cultivation during 2018-19, which also saves water and can reduce greenhouse gas emissions

An autonomous body under the Bihar Department of Rural Development, Jeevika is also helping women to obtain specialized equipment for zero tillage and for the mechanized transplanting of rice seedlings into paddies, which reduces women’s hard labor of hand transplanting.

“Mechanization is helping us manage our costs and judiciously use our time in farming,” says Rekha Devi, a woman farmer member of Jeevika Gulab self-help group of Beniwal Village, Jamui District. “We have learned many new techniques through our self-help group.”

With more than 100 million inhabitants and over 1,000 persons per square kilometer, Bihar is India’s most densely-populated state. Nearly 90 percent of its people live in rural areas and agriculture is the main occupation. Women in Bihar play key roles in agriculture, weeding, harvesting, threshing, and milling crops, in addition to their household chores and bearing and caring for children, but they often lack access to training, vital information, or strategic technology.

Like all farmers in South Asia, they also face risks from rising temperatures, variable rainfall, resource degradation, and financial constraints.

Jeevika has formed more than 700,000 self-help groups in Bihar, mobilizing nearly 8.4 million poor households, 25,000 village organizations, and 318 cluster-level federations in all 38 districts of Bihar.

The organization also fosters access for women to “custom-hiring” businesses, which own the specialized implement for practices such as zero tillage and will sow or perform other mechanized services for farmers at a cost. “Custom hiring centers help farmers save time in sowing, harvesting and threshing,” said Anil Kumar, Program Manager, Jeevika.

The staff training, knowledge and tools shared by CSISA have been immensely helpful in strengthening the capacity of women farmers, according to Dr. D. Balamurugan, CEO, Jeevika. “We aim to further strengthen our partnership with CSISA and accelerate our work with women farmers, improving their productivity while saving their time and costs,” Balamurugan said.

CSISA is implemented jointly by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). It is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Reigning in the blast epidemic

Dr. J.M.C. Fernandes from Brazil explaining the working of spore trap to trainees

To build resilience against the threat of wheat blast, training sessions were held in Bangladesh to increase the reach of research findings and possible solutions as well as to educate the stakeholders involved. Since 2017, hands-on training on disease screening and surveillance of wheat blast have been organized every year in Bangladesh, with participation of national and international scientists. The third of its kind was jointly organized by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Wheat and Maize Research Institute (BWMRI), and the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) Bangladesh during 19-28 February, 2019 at Regional Agricultural Research Station, Jashore with financial support from the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT), the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the Krishi Gobeshona Foundation (KGF) and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The objective of the training was to learn the basic techniques of pathogen identification and its culturing, field inoculation and disease scoring and share experiences regarding combating the disease and its progress among the participants from home and abroad. Thirty five wheat scientists from China, India and Nepal as well as from BWMRI, DAE and CIMMYT in Bangladesh participated in the training.

The training was inaugurated by Kamala Ranjan Das, Additional Secretary (Research), Ministry of Agriculture, Bangladesh. The Director General of BWMRI, Dr. Naresh C. D. Barma was the Chair and Dr. T. P. Tiwari, Country Representative, CIMMYT Bangladesh and Additional Director of Jashore region of DAE were the special guests in the inaugural session. In addition to Bangladeshi experts, Dr. José Maurício C. Fernandes from Brazil, Dr. Pawan K. Singh from CIMMYT, Mexico and Dr. Timothy J. Krupnik from CIMMYT, Bangladesh presented the updates on the techniques for mitigating the disease. Dr. M. Akhteruzzaman, Deputy Director of DAE, Meherpur, who has been working very closely with wheat blast research and extension, spoke on the history and present status of wheat blast in Bangladesh. It was a unique opportunity for the trainees to listen from grass root level experience based on the real situation in the farmers’ fields.

Group photo of trainees at the precision phenotypic platform (PPP) for wheat blast at Regional Agricultural Research Station, Jashore, Bangladesh.

Wheat is especially susceptible to blast infection during warm and humid weather conditions. While the fungus infects all above ground parts of the crop, infection in spikes is most critical and responsible for yield loss. Hence, to determine whether blast is endemic to the specific region and also to assess the epidemic potential in unaffected regions, Dr. Fernandes developed a wheat blast forecasting model with support from CIMMYT Bangladesh. To collect data on the presence of wheat blast spores in the air, CIMMYT, in collaboration with BWMRI, installed four spore traps in four different wheat fields in Meherpur, Faridpur, Rajshahi and Dinajpur districts of Bangladesh. The results from these spore traps and weather parameters will help validate the wheat blast forecasting model. After final validation, the recommendation message will be sent to farmers and DAE personnel through mobile app. This will help farmers decide the perfect time for spraying fungicide to control blast effectively.

During the training participants received the hands-on experience of activities in the precision phenotypic platform (PPP) for wheat blast, where 4500 germplasm from different countries of the world and CIMMYT Mexico are being tested under artificial inoculated conditions. To keep the environment sufficiently humid, the trial is kept under mist irrigation to facilitate proper disease development. Trainees learned identification of leaf and spike symptoms of wheat blast, identification and isolation of conidia under microscope, inoculum preparation, tagging selected plants in the fields for inoculation, field inoculation of germplasms being tested at the PPP and more.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), wheat consumption in Bangladesh is 7.7 million tons as of 2018 while only 1.25 million tons are supplied domestically. Since the majority of wheat is imported, it will adversely affect the economy if the comparatively smaller amount the country produces decreases due to blast. So the impact of wheat blast is not limited to food production but affects the economy as a whole, and steps to help mitigate the disease are crucial in ensuring healthy growth of wheat yield.

Wheat blast, caused by Magnaporthe oryzae pathotype Triticum (MoT), was first discovered in Brazil in 1985 and then surprisingly appeared in the wheat fields of Bangladesh in 2016, causing 25-30% yield loss in 15,000 ha. As an immediate response to this crisis, CIMMYT and the government of Bangladesh have worked together to mitigate the disease, most notably by distributing factsheets to farmers, conducting routine follow-ups followed by the development and rapid release of blast resistant wheat variety BARI Gom 33 and tolerant varieties (BARI Gom 30 and 32) and strengthening research on blast.


New Publications: Identifying common genetic bases for yield, biomass and radiation use efficiency in spring wheat

This article was originally published on the website of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center on March 7, 2019.

For plant scientists, increasing wheat yield potential is one of the most prevalent challenges of their work. One key strategy for increasing yield is to improve the plant’s ability to produce biomass through optimizing the conversion of solar radiation into plant structures and grain, called radiation use efficiency (RUE). Currently, the process is 30-50% less efficient in wheat than in maize.

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) wheat physiologist Gemma Molero, in collaboration with Ryan Joynson and Anthony Hall of the Earlham Institute, has been studying the association of RUE related traits with molecular markers to identify specific genes associated with this trait.

In December 2018, her team published their results in the article “Elucidating the genetic basis of biomass accumulation and radiation use efficiency in spring wheat and its role in yield potential,” shedding light on some of the genetic bases of biomass accumulation and RUE in a specially designed panel of lines that included material with diverse expression of RUE over the wheat crop cycle.

Over the course of two years, Molero and fellow researchers evaluated a panel of 150 elite spring wheat genotypes for 31 traits, looking for marker traits associated with yield and other “sink”-related traits, such as, grain number, grain weight and harvest index, along with ‘’source’’-related traits, such as RUE and biomass at various growth stages. Many of the elite wheat lines that were tested encompass “exotic” material in their pedigree such as ancient wheat landraces and wheat wild relatives.

The scientists found that increases in both net rate of photosynthesis and RUE have the potential to make a large impact on wheat biomass, demonstrating that the use of exotic material is a valuable resource to help increase yield potential. This is the first time that a panel of elite wheat lines has been assembled using different sources of yield potential traits, and an important output from a large global endeavor to increase wheat yield, the International Wheat Yield Partnership (IWYP).

“We identified common genetic bases for yield, biomass and RUE for the first time. This has important implications for wheat researchers, breeders, geneticists, plant scientists and biologists,” says Molero.

The identification of molecular markers associated with the studied traits is a valuable tool for wheat improvement. Broadly speaking, the study opens the door for a series of important biological questions about the role of RUE in yield potential and in the ability to increase grain biomass.

In order to accommodate worldwide population increases and shifts in diet, wheat yield needs to double by 2050 — and genetic gains in wheat, specifically, must increase at a rate of 2.4 percent annually. Increasing biomass through the optimization of RUE along the wheat crop cycle can be an important piece in the puzzle to help meet this demand.

Read the full study here.